Born on the Fourth of July

To the Moon and back with Explosions in the Sky

Born on the Fourth of July

A surge of lightning flickers as thunder cracks above the rumble of molten lava.

"I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me."

Golden-tousled Midwesterner Chris Hrasky beams, saturated with the sheer gravity of the Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King trailer glowing on the Power Mac in front of him.

"The day may come when the courage of men fails."

Michael James removes his headphones and looks up from the Pro Tools workstation, surveying the scene momentarily.

"When we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship."

In the dining room, Munaf Rayani and Mark Smith take a break from the small wooden Scrabble blocks and peer in at the last alliance between elves and men.

"But this is not that day!"

No, it isn't. This rainy Wednesday afternoon is, however, the last chance for the members of Explosions in the Sky to lounge around Rayani and James' north Central Austin headquarters before leaving on a weeklong tour of Japan. A last chance to catch Sofia Coppola's gaijin-in-Japan flick Lost in Translation before their journey. A last chance to be awed by small, homely things before surrendering to the exotic allure of the Far East.

For these four best friends, the little things count most. Behind every game of Scrabble, every pickup game of basketball on the Eastside, every viewing of a favorite film, the Austin quartet catches a glimpse of humanity. It's this deep obsession with life's countless moments that defines the music of Explosions in the Sky, a series of wordless, guitar-hewed epics so visceral they've moved people to tears.

"I don't know how it is for other bands, but for us, we're full-fledged living out a dream," exclaims guitarist Rayani, at 22 the most wide-eyed of the group. "There have been so many times where we just stop and go, 'What are we doing here?' We're in Vienna, Austria. We're in Taipei, Taiwan. We're in New York City. For me, that's the biggest paycheck."

The road to Taipei, though, has been fraught with peril for these four well-meaning boys with small-town upbringings. And never more so than when the band released its superlative sophomore missive Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever in early September 2001. Explosions, martyrdom, and September 11: the ingredients for a shit storm if there ever was one.

This Plane Will Crash Tomorrow

The CD insert of Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever is illustrated with the bold, crayonlike image of a biplane whose searchlight is fixed on an angel. Unfolding into three sections, the booklet reveals the angel isolated on one side, "help us stay alive" stamped beneath. On the opposing flap, the plane flies over a warning: "This plane will crash tomorrow."

The string of coincidences surrounding the band, its artwork, and the destruction of the World Trade Center was surreal, and they came back to haunt them on the band's first European tour that December. James, the group's bassist, was detained at the Amsterdam airport, told he was a threat to security. James lied about the band's name until the officer asked why "this plane will crash tomorrow" was written on his guitar. Somehow, a copy of the disc got the band past that sticky hurdle.

That October, a pair of shows with the even more grimly named Austin rock moguls ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead at NYC's Knitting Factory produced more anxiety.

"You walked out of the Knitting Factory, down to the end of the street, and you could see the cranes, lights, and wreckage," says Explosions' drummer Hrasky.

The show went off without a hitch, as did the rest of the band's first full-scale tour, an unforgettable baptism of fire.

Mercifully, Explosions in the Sky's music serves as an unquestionable boon to any healing process. Though their neo-classical rock peers in Scotland's Mogwai and Montreal's Godspeed You! Black Emperor paved the way for the Austin band's success, Explosions in the Sky have forged a brand of instrumental rock that's a thousand times more lyrical, whispering and breathing more than it screams and shocks.

On Those Who Tell the Truth ... and the brand-new The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place, both on Portland, Ore., indie Temporary Residence, Explosions have distilled the moody, melodic essence of emo rockers like Sunny Day Real Estate and Austin's Gloria Record into a grandiloquent backdrop that speaks in colors and shapes instead of words.

Where the devastating Godspeed You! Black Emperor are truly the nine wraiths of the apocalypse, the soundtrack to ground zero annihilation, Explosions are lost souls in the middle of the smoke and ash, firemen pulling people out of burning buildings, humbled immigrants watching chaos unfold on their TVs.

"We're more hopeful and romantic," posits Rayani. "That's what we bring to the table that those guys sometimes don't. I think we're all looking at the peak of the mountain, but from different parts of space."

Midland Is Not a Cold Dead Place

From the vast West Texas skyline they came, three friends -- Rayani, James, and Smith -- arriving in Austin from Midland, Texas, one by one between 1996 and 1998. Here, they picked up guitars in an attempt to capture the sounds and scenes running through their heads.
Explosions in the Sky: Chris Hrasky, Munaf Rayani, Mark Smith, Michael James
Explosions in the Sky: Chris Hrasky, Munaf Rayani, Mark Smith, Michael James

Hrasky landed last, in 1999, taking refuge from the similar stupor of Rockford, Ill. "Wanted: Sad, Triumphant Rock Band" read the flier he posted in a local record store on a last-ditch effort to find something worthwhile in Austin before giving up on Texas completely and moving back to Illinois. Answering the summons, the Midlanders forged an immediate bond with Hrasky. With his dramatic, military-march beats and cymbal sprays, Hrasky was the missing ingredient.

"The stars lined up," attests Rayani. "For us to find each other, it saved our lives. If I wasn't doing this, I don't know what I'd be doing -- probably boring, pointless shit just to get through the day."

The band's identity didn't really coalesce until July 4, 1999. They had been invited in studio for KVRX's Local Live, performing under the unbecoming moniker of Breaker Morant, and it was there they cut "Remember Me as a Time of Day," an early-morning tracer of uncomplicated beauty that remains one of their best works. The composition also marked Explosions' recorded debut, appearing on volume 4 of the college radio frequency's compilation series. When the group left the station, they could hear fireworks downtown. Hrasky made a remark about explosions in the sky, and the words resonated.

Three years, two albums, and one controversial autumn later, it was time to follow up the awe-inspiring Those Who Tell the Truth. Cash and concentration began to wane, and it soon became clear there was only one place to go. Back to the open skies and quiet nights that first stirred the music and its makers. Back to Midland, Texas, which had become a ghost town with the departure of their friends and families, who had since migrated elsewhere.

They worked uninspiring day jobs just so they could play by night in the basement of an office building. The sessions were interrupted by treks out to the quietest, most remote spot they could find, a long string of sand dunes called Monahans Sandhills State Park.

"It's like a desert," motions Smith. "You can go out there and not see one city light, not hear a thing. We'd go out there and talk, bring a jam box and listen to music."

"It's like another planet," swears James. "It was like we were on the moon."

Accordingly, their reservoir of sound began to replenish. Soon, the band had the five multisplendored movements that make up The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place, which refines the band's sharp dynamics, while leaving intact the restraint and simplicity that made their locally distributed debut, How Strange, Innocence, and Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die so endearing.

"For the first time it actually sounds like we want it to sound," offers Smith about The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place and the production work of John Cougleton, who fronts Dallas' Paper Chase.

"I would say at this point that we'll never work with anybody else again," declares Hrasky.

"First Breath After Coma"

It starts with a single chime of consciousness, reaching out and quivering as it finds the ganglia spread throughout the body. The thump-thump of a heartbeat. Then, suddenly, the conscious mind wakes. A single-note melody unravels, taking its first tentative steps into rediscovery. A wondrous, chin-scratching pause presages a shimmering double helix of intertwining guitar lines that mark an onrushing flood of memories.

Narratives like this, which describe only the first half of "First Breath After Coma," the 10-minute opener of The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place, are the only way to convey the visual power of Explosions in the Sky's music. They're the musical equivalent of psychology/art primer Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, forming a vivid mental picture that's completely free from the crude mental crayons necessary to translate word into meaning.

"Whatever images one of us will say, we hear it the same way," explains Rayani, describing the band's songwriting process. "If Mark says, 'This makes me think of a 12-year-old kid falling in love with a 13-year-old girl for the first time,' we all hear what that sounds like, and we write around it."

"I think that the main example on this record is 'Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean,'" says Smith of the unfurling collision course with doom that anchors The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place. "It was written around the story of the Kursk, the Russian sub that sank to the bottom of the ocean. We were imagining what it was like to be those men at the bottom of the sea, trapped and desperate, running out of oxygen. [The song] gallops, getting faster and more intense until it just stops, and you breathe your last breath."

Explosions in the Sky have already had their music adorn two feature-length films. The first, the Austin Film Festival award-winning cicadas, documents the barely 6-month-old group, hammering out early versions of the songs that appeared on How Strange, Innocence, recorded at the Bubble in January 2000. Even then it was obvious the band had hit on something remarkable, skeletal sparklers that were accessible and simple, yet tugged at the heartstrings on such a basic level they fit perfectly into the coming-of-age teen love drama they found themselves in.

The second celluloid spotlight was this year's All the Real Girls by ex-Austinite David Gordon Green, whose two critically acclaimed features rank among the collective favorites of this triad of amateur film critics (see Explosions in the Cinema). The band has even gotten fan mail, including detailed plot proposals, from a pair of amateur filmmakers in New York who plan to make a full-length video for Those Who Tell the Truth.

"This is by far the most worthwhile, most important thing that I've ever done with my life, or that I will ever do," proclaims James.

"What we're trying to achieve, whether it's listening to the record or going to the show, is to change your world for an hour," says Rayani. "To let go and daydream about what you can. That's the beauty of instrumental music, it can hit so many people on so many different levels."

Magic Hours

At an Explosions in the Sky performance, any song could just as well be a short film.

James spends the entire show in an odd stupor, going long stretches with his eyes closed, and others with eyes agape as he jerks back and forth, relentlessly pounding the bass. Rayani is generally either swaying uneasily from left to right, knees slightly bent, or he's kneeling onstage in what begins as a ploy to adjust some pedals but quickly becomes some sort of spiritual crouch. Hrasky is lost in a world of drum heads and cymbals, while Smith toils away on the left side of the stage, seemingly absorbed by all that's happening around him.

"All of us get so lost while we're playing that I truly don't know where I am," claims Rayani. "We've ended shows where we're just toppled over on each other. When that last note ends and I look up, it's like I haven't been there the whole time."

Whether onstage, on album, or in their living room, the natural chemistry of these four minds radiates a collective conviction and palpable warmth, a constant reminder that the Earth is indeed not a cold dead place.

"These guys are my favorite musicians in the world," declares Rayani. "And before we're a band, we're best friends. When we come back from tour, we stay away from each other for a couple of days, just to kinda settle.

"Then it's right back into sitting around with each other, doing nothing. Playing Scrabble." end story

Explosions in the Sky celebrate the release of The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place with two shows at the Parish, Wednesday, Oct. 29, and Thursday, Oct. 30.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle